It was 112 degrees and sunny, blindingly sunny. The dust, coupled with the dry desert air, was almost as lethal as the bombs. The shelling had gone on sporadically for three days now. In the silence in between, you could hear the wails of parents grieving for their children and the sobs of orphans wandering through the debris. Those that could, walked the streets calling out for anyone trapped in the rubble, listening intently for any reply.
Amid the wreckage, a young woman cradles her small son. He is bleeding and barely conscious. This is not Jihad, she thought. This is not God’s will. This is slaughter and power-grabbing, the injury made all the worse because they claim the holy high ground as they aim the next rocket and let loose the next round of rifle fire.
She began singing the Janazah, the prayer for the dead, for her child, rocking with his body, back and forth to the rhythm of the chant.
In a cave deep in the Himalayas, a Buddhist monk stirs from his meditation. Opening his eyes, he gazes at the marks on the wall opposite him. Slowly rising from his cushion, he walks across the stone floor, picks up a piece of charcoal and uses it to cross a line through one of the hash marks. He bows his head, says a silent prayer, then slowly returns to his seat of straw and resumes his prayerful state, chanting first, then slipping back into meditation.
Nathan Morrison trudged along the rocky path through the Himalayan mountains in Nepal. The trail through the Annapurna Conservation Area was well above the tree line and fully exposed to the elements. Historically, it was a caravan route that connected the Kali Gandake River to the western interior. Today, the road stopped just past Manang, turning into a foot trail that almost faded completely into the rocky landscape, eventually connecting up to Kaisang.
With his hood sheltering him from the unremitting sun, he dragged Lucy, his less-than-cooperative pack mule, over the gravel path. He had dismissed the Sherpa yesterday in search of the true solitary experience. He planned to pick up another guide at the end of the pass, but for the next three days it was just he, Lucy, and the great Annapurna Wilderness.
Both Buddhists and Hindus considered the Himalayas to be sacred mountains. Judging from the view as he flew into Katmandu, he could see why. They were expansive beyond anything he could have imagined. Snow-covered all year, the highest summits were rarely seen from the valley, disappearing into the clouds and inspiring a sense of mystery and majesty. Men had sought their peaks since the beginning of civilization. The tallest of all, Mt. Everest, was finally conquered in 1953 by Tenzig Norgay from Nepal, and Edmond Hillary from New Zealand.
Many came here on a spiritual journey. Nathan had no such grandiose goals. He’d given up on any great spiritual awakening after wasting $5,000 for a week-long workshop in Cabo, where overpaid scientists claimed that reality was just an illusion. True or not, it didn’t make much difference day to day. Life went right on ahead, with bills to pay and decisions to make. All he was hoping for now was that some solitude would clear his head. He needed to figure out what he was going to say to Kate.
The trail was safe enough. No rocky cliffs or wild animals. He’d come in November, despite it being the busy season, because that’s what fit into his jammed-up schedule. Usually, he traveled in the off season to avoid huge crowds. He chose this trail specifically because it wasn’t that popular. Not only would he avoid other hikers, but the chance of encountering any of the marauders that frequented the more touristy routes was as remote as the trail itself. He just needed to be alone, really alone. He needed to rid his mind of the chaos, stress and distractions of Chicago, to get clear about his future with Kate. Mostly, this trip was a stall tactic. She had laid down the ultimatum earlier this summer. Get in or get out of this relationship. In an effort to buy himself a few weeks, he concocted this life changing journey through sacred mountains to help him get his priorities straight. He’d seen the trip on a travel brochure in his dentist’s office and it seemed as good an excuse as any and, who knows, it might work. So far, though, there had been no great insights.
After only a few hours without his guide, he was already feeling the discomfort of being alone with himself. Automatically, he reached for his cell phone in its usual place, on his side, attached to his belt. It wasn’t there. He knew that. The reflex was purely habit. Whenever he felt disconnected or indecisive, all he had to do was log on and see what other people thought. It steadied him, gave him focus, clarified things.
Solitary life wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. Nonetheless, he had three more days until he reached the next village so he resigned himself to make the best of it and focused his attention on the journey. That would be the Buddhist way, after all, focusing on the present moment.
It was late in the day and he was looking for a good spot to shelter for the night, somewhere out of the wind, somewhere level, maybe with a little cover in case afternoon rain clouds crept over the ridge. A small alcove in the massive walls of sandstone perhaps. It had worked for him the previous night.
The trail was visible for several miles as it wove its way through the barren mountainside. Beyond a couple of switchbacks, he could see the shadow of what appeared to be a small cave. Although it looked reasonably close, he knew from experience it would take at least two hours to get there, just in time for dinner. After conferring briefly with Lucy and meeting no resistance, he pressed on.
The sun was closing in on the horizon as he approached the alcove. The late afternoon stillness was comforting and he was looking forward to making camp. As he neared the entrance, he noticed a hint of fragrance in the air. It was a familiar smell. He recognized it from the various villages and temples he had been visiting along the route. It was Nag Champa, the incense of choice for most Buddhist practices. It had a distinct aroma. He looked around, curious about its source since he was miles from nowhere. The closer he got to the cave, the stronger the smell. He was beginning to wonder if his campsite was already occupied. It wouldn’t be completely unheard of for some monk to be squirreled away up here, meditating, seeking enlightenment, but knowing how far they were from any village, it seemed unlikely. He cautiously approached the opening, leaving Lucy tethered just outside the entrance.
The scent was definitely coming from the cave. He poked his head in. As his eyes adjusted to the reduced light, he saw a typical cave with stone walls and dirt floor. No sign of habitation by man or beast. After stepping inside, scrapings on the back wall and ceiling became visible, indicating it had been expanded to sleep two or three travelers comfortably, with the ceiling raised to allow standing full-height for most people. A fire ring near the entrance indicated past use but there were no other signs of recent occupancy. Then he spotted a small portal in the rear wall that seemed to go further into the mountain. Walking toward the back, he picked up a slight humming sound. As he ventured further, it became a very distinct O-O-O-O-O-O-M-M-M-M-M-M. He recognized it immediately. It was an ancient Buddhist chant that, according to Eastern philosophy, aligned with the primordial sound of the universe. The sound just before the big bang. The sound before sound. He wasn’t sure how much he bought into any of the eastern thought. At the moment he wasn’t sure about anything except that so far, it had all seemed like a load of crap. Religion “is the opium of the people,” Marx had claimed. He could believe that. Nonetheless, he had to admit that the steady hum of the chant was soothing and the possibility of human contact was appealing, even if it meant interrupting a holy man.
A faint light in the back drew him further into the cave. He followed the glimmer around a bend to discover a small chamber lit by a candle perched on a small stone ledge. Here he found the source of the chanting. In the dark red robes of the local temples, a monk sat perfectly still, chanting OM softly with each breath. Surely the monk had heard him. He wasn’t exactly stealthy, tripping over boulders and crunching on the gravelly path, and yet the monk seemed undisturbed.
Nathan took the opportunity to look around the inner sanctum. It was about the same size as the outer room with similar scarring on the walls. On the dirt floor below the candle, was a small cache of dried food, a jug of water and a few blankets. To the right, the monk sat on some sort of a cushion, back to the wall and legs folded up like a pretzel. Opposite him, the left wall was entirely covered with hash marks as if the monk was keeping count of something. His gaze turned back to the man seated on the floor. He was old, very old. As Nathan considered this, the monk’s eyes opened, startling him. They stared at each other for a long moment. Awkwardly, Nathan cleared his throat.
“Um, excuse me,” he stammered, not sure if the monk even understood English. “I’m sorry to bother you.”
The monk continued to look at him.
Thinking he didn’t understand, Nathan went on, adding exaggerated hand gestures. “I’m s-o-r-r-y,” he dragged out the words, waving hands of apology as he started to back out of the inner chamber.
“No problem,” the monk replied in clear English. “Please stay.”
“Oh,” Nathan replied, aborting his retreat, “Yeah, sure.”
After a moment the monk asked, “Why are you here?”
“Well, I was looking for a place to spend the night but-,”
“Why are you here in Nepal,” the monk interrupted.
“Well, ah, not a simple question, really, but the short answer is that I’m hiking to Kaisang.”
“Not where are you going. Why are you here?”
“I’m running away from my life.”
“Not where have you come from,” the monk replied patiently.
Frustrated, Nathan searched for the answer. “I’m confused, directionless, burnt out. I need clarity.”
The monk nodded his acceptance. “You will find it here,” he replied.
Nathan let out a noise that was almost a scoff. “That would be nice.”
“You doubt me.” The monk nodded his head. “Therein lies the problem. You doubt everything. Even your own judgment.”
“No disrespect, sir, but it’s complicated.”
“It is not complicated. You make it so to avoid doing what you know is right.”
Nathan considered this. It felt comfortingly true. He’d tried to dodge things but if he got honest with himself, he had known all along. He knew it when he got on the plane to find himself. He knew it standing in his boss’s office the day the promotion was offered. He knew it when Kate laid out the ultimatum – marriage and family or move on. He knew the answers, he just didn’t like them. This quest was more about looking for answers he liked.
Nathan looked down. “Maybe true,” he conceded.
“Stay. We have much to discuss, Nathan Morrison.”
A tiny ripple of fear ran through Nathan’s body. He tried desperately to remember if he’d introduced himself when he entered the cave. He didn’t think so, but the alternative was that he was expected. No, he must have told the monk his name. He just didn’t recall it. Awkward self-doubt started to bubble through his external bravado. “But I’ve disturbed your peace,” he almost stammered, “I can find another spot.” He was back-peddling now.
“You can stay in the outer alcove. Settle yourself and attend to your animal,” the monk directed him. “Then return.”
Not seeing any graceful way out, he acquiesced. “Sure. Thank you.” He bowed awkwardly as he left.
When he emerged from the cave, the sun was low in the sky. Even if he wanted to, there wasn’t much daylight left to find another camp site. He considered making a run for it. Whatever this was, he wasn’t sure he wanted to get sucked in. Or was he already? And what was he doing here? This old monk had to be at least a little crazy to be sitting alone in the middle of a mountain a hundred miles from nowhere. Again, he consulted Lucy.
“Well, girl. What do you think?”
As if in direct response, Lucy placed her butt solidly on the ground, then tucked her front legs beneath her as she lowered herself to rest on the dusty trail.
“Are you sure?” he asked, hoping for a different outcome.
Lucy stayed put, turning her head away from him and looking out over the valley below.
“Thanks a lot,” he mumbled as he started to untie her load. He secured Lucy at the entrance to the cave, attending to her food and water, then settled himself just inside, laying out his bedroll and organizing his supplies. Then return the monk had instructed. He wasn’t sure he wanted to. He considered pretending to sleep and then sneaking out first thing in the morning. It felt a bit cowardly, even juvenile. Come on, he was better than that. He’d just been offered a promotion at his advertising firm making him the youngest manager ever promoted to director. What the hell was he afraid of?
In the corporate world he was known as a go-getter. He had a can-do and will-do attitude. He was all business, resulting in the all-work-no-play lifestyle that got rewarded with money and prestige. Kate had come along four years ago offering him legitimacy in a world where perceived monogamy was valued and a long-term relationship showed stability. At first, she fit into his picture more as an accessory than a staple. Now, however, with the threat of abandonment on the horizon, he was starting to appreciate how much he loved her. But was it enough for a lifetime? She wanted a long-term commitment. He was on thin ice and he knew it. Do or die. This trip to Nepal was partly just to placate her, proving that he was working on it. But he wasn’t even sure what it was. And now, he was being offered the opportunity to take counsel with what millions of people considered a holy man and his response was to sneak away before daylight. Really? Who better to consult with – if you believed in that sort of thing? He was tired of the spiritual double-speak. Still, logic told him to hear the man out.
The sun was kissing the horizon good night when he headed to the back chamber. He tip-toed into the monk’s space, secretly hoping he wouldn’t be noticed. No such luck.
“Sit.” The monk motioned toward the pile of folded blankets on the floor.
“Thank you,” Nathan replied as he made his way to the ground. His slender frame suggested an athleticism that had escaped him. Not being particularly flexible or graceful, his journey to the floor ended with a plop and a wince. Once seated, he looked around the cave again. It looked as if it had been used for many years. Soot from candles streaked up the walls and onto the roof. Straw mats on the floor showed signs of wear. His attention went again to the hash marks on the wall. He wondered if the monk was marking time. If so, it was a lot of days. Hundreds certainly.
“You think I mark time,” the monk offered, as if knowing his thoughts. “You are incorrect.”
Nathan, shaken a little by the comment, asked, “Then what do you count?”
“I count the Buddhas.”
Nathan looked at the wall, then back at the monk. “I thought there were only four.”
“As do most people. Their limited thinking discounts many.”
Nathan looked back to the hundreds of lines on the wall. “How do you count them.”
“A Buddha is a special being born with the ability to reach enlightenment. Not all do so. Some do not survive childhood. Others are enlightened but not recognized as such. Ghandhi for example.”
The monk sat silently while Nathan contemplated this. “And Martin Luther King, maybe?”
“Yes. He is another.”
“Why do you count them?”
“Are you familiar with the Buddhist teaching of 1000 Buddhas?”
“Yes, but only casually. That humanity will enter a new age after the 1000th Buddha is born.” Nathan had learned a lot about Buddhism in recent days. It’s hard not to, when you’re walking through the Himalayas with a Sherpa. The story didn’t get much attention, though, seeing that the most recently recognized Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, was number four and born 2,500 years ago.
“True. But there is more to the legend. According to scripture, at least half must reach enlightenment, 500 or more. It is the tipping point so to speak, the critical mass as some current thinkers call it. And at least one must be alive and enlightened to lead us into the new age. My task is to count them.”
“And what count are we at?” Nathan asked.
“999,” the monk responded.
Nathan let out a gasp. “Are you saying that 999 Buddhas have been born? 995 since Gautama?
“Not technically,” replied the monk. “Gautama was not number four. He was number eight. There were four born prior to him that died young.”
Nathan looked at the wall again, following the rows of hash marks all the way to the end. The last four were uncrossed.
The monk continued, “There must be one more enlightened Buddha for humanity to evolve. Of the last five, four are currently alive, represented by the marks without a cross hash, and one is yet to be born. One of these five must reach enlightenment.”
“How hard can that be?” Nathan asked.
“In today’s world, it is very difficult.”
Nathan looked at the wall that was full of crossed off lives, then again at the last four.
“What happens if none get enlightened?”
“Humanity will spiral downward into generations of dark, painful times until every person is dead and humanity is extinct, leaving the earth to restore balance without mankind.”
“Why isn’t anyone out there protecting these Buddhas and babies?” Nathan demanded.
“It was decided from the beginning that the proper course was to allow each Buddha to experience their lifetime in whatever way unfolds for them and in the way of their choosing.”
“Well, how’s that working for you?” His tone had a hint of sarcasm.
The monk ignored the attitude. “The decision has recently changed and the plan is to protect each of the living Buddhas as best we can.”
“Oh. Well, good then. I’m glad to hear it.” Against his better judgement, he was getting drawn into the story. “Where are these Buddhas?”
“I don’t know, exactly.”
“What do you mean you don’t know?”
“I am only aware of their birth and death. The vertical mark represents their birth. The cross-mark, their death.”
“Well, that doesn’t feel like a very efficient way to save the world from catastrophic darkness.” Nathan’s attitude was returning.
“Nonetheless, it is what we have.”
“Well, someone knows though, right?”
“That is somewhat true. Others have various pieces of information.”
“What do you mean?” Nathan wondered how much worse this was going to get. “You must know where they are, at least. You just said you decided to help them.”
“Yes. That decision began the process for selecting individuals most appropriate to the task. The choice requires patience, the selection is of the highest importance.”
“How long is that going to take?”
“It has recently been completed.”
“I’ll be heading back to the States in a few days. Let me know if I can help.” It was a half-hearted offer of politeness.
“Indeed,” replied the monk.
There was a pause. Nathan waited for the next comment. There was none. Then, before Nathan could fill the silence, the monk spoke again.
“You can stay as long as you like. I must go back into meditation for a few hours. We will talk tomorrow.” With that, the monk closed his eyes and resumed his chanting.
Nathan returned to the inner chamber first thing in the morning to pay his respects and be on his way when the conversation took an alarming turn.
“Me! Are you joking?” Nathan strained to see the monk in the dim candle light.
The monk remained silent.
“Surely you have no idea who I am. I’m nobody. I’m a pebble in a …” he struggled for an analogy. “I don’t know, in a truck full of rocks. I’m nothing special.”
The monk’s continued silence added a level of urgency to Nathan’s self-deprecation. “I’m certainly not a Buddha-hunting save-the-world kind of guy! I wouldn’t even know how to start. The US is really big, you know.”
“We know where he is.”
“I thought you said you only know when they are born and die?”
“That is all I know. We have others who search on the ground, so to speak.”
“Great. Then just go get him.”
“It is not possible in America today to walk into someone’s home, claim their child is the next enlightened one, and take them to be raised in a monastery.”
“Okay, maybe not. But surely there is another solution.”
“There is. You.”
“What do I know about being enlightened? About Buddhism? About any of it?”
“You do not need to know these things. We know these things. You need to know how to find someone and keep them safe in inner city America.”
Nathan thought about this for a moment. It was certainly true that it would be nearly impossible for this man, or anyone like him, to navigate urban America without drawing a certain amount of attention. “Still, I’m not so sure I’m your man.”
“We are sure.”
“Who is this we you keep talking about?”
“Centuries ago, when it became apparent that Buddhas were dying at an alarming rate, the Dali Lama formed a secret order to hold the knowledge required to train the next Buddha. These individuals were stationed around the world. In the event that a Buddha was identified, they would be ready to act. That changed three years ago with the death of number nine hundred ninety-three.”
“I’m still not clear who the we is.”
“Trust that we are doing what we can, considering our limitations.”
“That isn’t an answer.”
“That is my only answer.”
Frustrated with where this was going, Nathan changed tacks. “Okay. So where is this person?”
The words hit him in the chest. Suddenly, Nathan saw the point of this whole conversation. He was scurrying around in his brain, looking for a way out. “Can you narrow that down?” His voice was louder than he expected.
“He is a male child, age thirteen.”
“Seriously? Do you know how many thirteen-year-old boys there are in Chicago?” He was almost shouting.
“No. But we are sure you do.”
Nathan stopped short. He couldn’t argue there. Although he didn’t know off the top of his head, it would be easy to find out, especially in his role as market developer. Maybe there was some method to the monk’s madness.
“Okay, so let’s say I do know. That’s still a lot of boys. I can’t just go ask each one ‘Hey, are you the next Buddha?’”
The monk reached into a bowl beside him and retrieved a small pendant that he held up for Nathan to see. It was brass with a silver inlay of a seated Buddha on one side and what appeared to be a Sanskrit symbol on the other.
“This will help you identify him.” He reached across the cave to Nathan.
Nathan held up his hands in protest. “I keep telling you, I’m not your guy.”
“You are the only one.”
Nathan looked at the medallion, then back at the old monk. Suddenly, he saw the monk differently. Canyons of age wrinkled his face and neck. Shadows under his eyes the flagship of sleep interrupted by worry. Ashen skin a likely indication of failing health. He realized he was looking at an old man carrying a great burden and it sobered him. He knew that by accepting the token, he was also accepting the task of safeguarding this young boy, whoever he was. He had to admit, the monk’s story had rekindled some of the old mysticism he used to believe in. And it was plausible that he could identify such a boy if he existed. Still, he hesitated. Then, looking the monk directly in the eye, he slowly reached out across the cave. Both men paused for an almost imperceptible moment, exchanging the slightest of nods, a nonverbal agreement, before the medallion changed hands.
Nathan held it in his palm. It was small, about the size of a quarter, and otherwise unremarkable. It might be something bought from a street vendor at one of the local bazaars.
“What is it?” he asked.
“Shouldn’t it be bigger or grander or shinier or something.”
The monk smiled, relieving the intensity of the moment. “Contrary to popular American opinion, size does not matter.”
Nathan resisted the urge to defend himself. He had to agree that the Bigger is Better attitude had pretty much taken over American culture. With a nod and a smile, he asked, “How does it work?”
“It will react when you are within a certain radius of the child. The reaction will get stronger the closer you get.”
“What kind of a reaction?”
“I do not know.”
“Great.” Nathan shook his head. He was starting to take this task seriously, as impossible as it sounded. “What if I fail?”
“Three more are currently alive and there is still one more child yet to be born. They are the last hope for humanity to evolve.”
“Okay. No pressure there,” he replied, using humor to shake off the foreboding.
“Do not take this task lightly,” cautioned the monk. “There is very little room for error.”
Staring at the hundreds of charcoal hash marks, Nathan wondered what he was up against. “What happened to all those Buddhas?”
“They met their fates in various ways,” offered the monk. “Some of natural causes, some in battle. One was buried alive in Pompei when Mount Vesuvius erupted in the first century. Twelve were executed as witches. Three died in the Black Plague. One in the concentration camps of World War II. Shall I go on?”
“No. I get the picture. Still, that’s almost a thousand Buddha’s in two thousand years. On average, one every two years.” Nathan was thinking out loud.
“The further away from the last enlightened Buddha, the more frequently these special beings are born. When one reaches such a state, the birth rate slows again. But the world is becoming less stable and time is running out.”
Nathan looked at the wall. The last four marks were free of a cross hash.
“Who decides when and where one is born?”
“By your understanding, God.”
“Why doesn’t God just make this transformation happen, regardless of the Buddha count?”
“God will not do for man what man will not do for himself. If we, as a species cannot accomplish this one seemingly simple task, we are not worthy of transformation and will thus die out.”
“Not looking good for humans. What about the others? One is in Chicago under my watch. Where are the others?”
“They are likewise being guarded as best we can.”
“By who?” Nathan was curious
“It does not matter. You have your task. Others have theirs.”